People in Nottinghamshire’s Brexit heartland say the UK’s exit from the European Union has been “mismanaged”, but that it could still be made to work. Whilst some of those living and working in Mansfield blast Brexit as the “biggest mistake we ever made”, others argue that it was a good idea in principle that needed handling with more “care.”
When the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU was held, voting mostly took place by parliamentary constituency and Mansfield gave the strongest backing for Brexit in Nottinghamshire. Around 70% of those who voted in the town voted to leave the EU, with Rushcliffe being the only area of Nottinghamshire to vote for Remain.
The referendum vote eventually triggered a transition period during which the UK negotiated its withdrawal agreement with the EU, with Brexit officially taking place at 11pm on January 31, 2020. Almost three years on, the UK has been through a coronavirus pandemic, seen two changes in Prime Minister, mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth II and is still experiencing a cost of living crisis.
But in a period which has seen such phenomenal change across the UK, as well as an ongoing war in Ukraine, views on Brexit in Mansfield remain as strong as ever. It is with some surprise that the first person Nottinghamshire Live came across in the county’s Brexit heartland on Friday, January 13, was someone who thought that the UK’s departure from the EU had been an unmitigated disaster.
Dave Breeze, 72, who is retired and living in the Oak Tree area of Mansfield, said: “I think it’s the biggest mistake we ever made and things have now gone from bad to worse. You can see it with the situation in the NHS, I’ve just been to my doctor and I can’t get sorted out because there just aren’t enough staff.
“I voted to stay in the EU in the referendum but I did think at one point that it could end up being made good, but three years on and crikey, no. I can’t see things improving anytime soon to be honest.”
Another Mansfield resident who voted to stay in the EU was Catherine Denson, 70, who was in town with her husband Geof. She said: “The health service is in crisis now and I think we’re realising how reliant we were on people from the EU who worked in our NHS. We voted to remain and no, I don’t think Brexit has changed much for the better at all.”
NHS figures in fact show an apparent rise in staff with a recorded EU nationality since the Brexit referendum. In June 2016, there were 58,702 NHS staff with a recorded EU nationality whilst in June 2022, there were 70,735. But the House of Commons library says presenting this as the full story would be “misleading” because there are over 57,000 more staff for whom nationality is known now than in 2016.
The Nuffield Trust, carrying out its own research into how Brexit has affected the NHS, argued that Brexit had led to more than 4,000 EU doctors choosing not to work in the health service. The Government at the time branded the trust’s research “inaccurate.”
Aside from the debate around the impact on the NHS, some argued that Mansfield still needed to see investment nearly three years on from the Brexit vote. The town’s Conservative MP, Ben Bradley, has previously told us that several levelling-up projects are “in the pipeline” but that the nature of them means they will take time to materialise.
The town’s council has also previously revealed the six projects being invested in to ‘transform’ Mansfield. Mark Pollard, 37, who has just moved to Edwinstowe and now works for a charity in Mansfield, said: “I’m not too familiar with the town yet but just walking around, you can see that this is a place that needs some investment. From what I can see, we’ve just had a lot of Tory mismanagement with Brexit and we’ve never seen that supposed £350 million extra a week for the NHS either.”
Among those who did vote to leave the EU was Matthew Davis, 24, who lives in Mansfield and works in retail. He said: “I still think Brexit was a really good idea in terms of being able to make our own decisions, but it’s an idea that just needed a lot of care and I don’t think it has had that. It has been managed very badly but I still believe in Brexit, it just needs the right people in charge to fully deliver it.”
But Mark Bagley, in his mid-60s and retired, lives in Mansfield and struck a more pessimistic note by saying: “All I know is that I don’t believe anything that a politician says. The big thing that affected Mansfield was the closure of the pits and now we’ve seen that they’re going to open a coal mine up again in Cumbria, which seems totally hypocritical.
“I voted to stay in the EU and I don’t think Brexit has worked out very well. There’s still this job in Ireland that hasn’t been sorted out yet for a start.”
Some were less certain on whether Brexit had been good or bad for Mansfield, including Michael Kitching. The 62-year-old fishmonger lives in Cleethorpes but has been trading in Mansfield’s market for the last 15 years.
He said: “In general I don’t really know what to think. In terms of travel arrangements, I’ve got a place abroad and Brexit has certainly made getting there a bit more difficult.
“I did vote to stay in the EU because although I believed in the idea of self-governing, across the wider Brexit debate I wasn’t sure. I don’t think we’ve seen much change in the fishing industry despite the promises made.”
Another Mansfield resident who believes that promises made during the referendum haven’t been kept was Denise Tooley. The 50-year-old was in the town centre campaigning on behalf of the Socialist Party.
She said: “I will abstain on saying how I voted in the referendum, but what we have been given is a far-right version of Brexit. The whole debate became about immigration and I remember when Nigel Farage came to Mansfield, that was all he was talking about.
“So then the idea started that if you voted for Brexit, you were somehow a racist, and yet figures such as Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn are not racist people. The debate should have been about sovereignty and the bureaucracy of the EU and if we’d had a more socialist version of Brexit, it could have worked.”
Pete and Sue Long, both 73, a retired couple from Mansfield, were perhaps the most optimistic about the situation in arguing that Brexit could still be made to work for the town. Pete Long said: “If we’d have had a Parliament that backed Brexit from the start then we might not be where we are now. We can hope it can still be made to work and we really need something to be done to give businesses a boost.
“We did vote for Brexit and not for immigration reasons at all, but because of the sovereignty argument and making our own laws. It could have really been made to work but we haven’t had the right people managing it.”
Brexit is perhaps no longer the biggest hot potato in Mansfield, with three gentleman in the town’s market instead having a discussion about the release of Prince Harry’s memoir. But for many others, they want to see more tangible and positive outcomes from an idea in which Mansfield so overwhelmingly put its faith in.